Synthesizer of Organic Compounds
Fraser-Reid was born on the island of Jamaica in 1934. His father, principal of a local school, encouraged him to pursue a career in education. Fraser-Reid taught for five years before meeting a new teacher who introduced him to chemistry. Fraser-Reid was enthralled with the science. In 1956 he decided to leave the island to attend Queens College in Ontario, Canada. Quickly attaining a bachelor’s degree in science, Fraser-Reid joined the research lab of a professor at the school. Here he explored the chemistry of carbohydrates. To complete his doctoral work, Fraser-Reid worked in another lab at the University of Alberta that used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to study the structure of complex carbohydrates.
After a stint in England Fraser-Reid took a position at the University of Waterloo in Canada in 1966. There he began to break new ground in the science of carbohydrates.
His various research experiences led him to look for and find connections between sugars and other carbon compounds. He eventually was able to manufacture noncarbohydrate compounds from simple carbohydrates (sugars). This was a real breakthrough because it reduced the reliance on petroleum as the raw material for modern chemistry. He published his findings in 1975. Fraser-Reid also developed chemicals that were tested for their medical benefits and investigated beetle pheromones looking for a use in pest control.
Fraser-Reid moved to the United States in 1980 to work at the University of Maryland. In 1983 he accepted a research professor chair at Duke University where he continued to seek ways to create compounds from complex carbohydrates.
In 1988, he invented a process to manufacture a complex carbohydrate that regulates certain reactions in human cells. Its usefulness is still being explored.
Fraser-Reid has researched complex carbohydrates, called oligosaccharides, that occur on viruses and human cell membranes; in 1988 he patented a process to manufacture them. He continues his research in organic chemistry, making unique contributions to the technology of renewable materials.
Bertram Fraser-Reid’s Legacy
Fraser-Reid’s methods of altering complex carbohydrates to synthesize other organic compounds have applications in modern pharmaceuticals, plastics, paints, fabrics, and many other products of chemical industries. His work promotes sugarcane and sugar beets as renewable resources that may supplement or replace the nonrenewable chemical resources (coal, oil) on which we now depend.
Another benefit of Fraser-Reid’s work is that uniform, pure batches of chemicals can be predictably synthesized. This is particularly true of mirror forms of organic compounds. Even simple carbon compounds (like the sugars glucose and fructose) having the same molecular composition may occur in two forms because some of their atoms are positioned differently, like mirror images or thumbs on hands. One form of such a compound may be useful while the other is inert or even toxic. Often both forms are produced when petroleum is the raw material, and then they must be separated; such impurities do not result when sugar is the base for synthesis.
His recent work on complex carbohydrates occurring on viruses and human cell membranes may lead to techniques for interfering with undesirable interactions at the cellular level (such as AIDS and cancer).
Although it is too soon to assess Fraser-Reid’s full legacy, it is not difficult to foresee that sugar will have increasing value as a renewable resource as petroleum stocks dwindle. His provocative work on the physiology of cell membranes may also lead others to health related discoveries in carbohydrate chemistry. Fraser-Reid’s 250 research publications are major contributions to the field and inspiration for the young scientists he has tried to challenge and encourage.
Bertram Fraser-Reid – 1934